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Wretched roads: a visit to Brazil highlights the value of Iowa’s infrastructure

Brazillian roads
(Editor's note: Tom Block, Farm Bureau News Coordinator, is on tour of Brazil with a group of Iowa farmers studying livestock production there. Here are some of his observations.)

Traveling to Brazil with a group of Iowa farmers, we knew the roads wouldn’t be up to U.S. standards. We just didn’t realize some of the situations we’d find ourselves in during our two week market study tour sponsored by Iowa Farm Bureau.

I lived on a gravel road growing up, and there were only a couple days a year that our school bus wasn’t able make its route to pick us up. In Brazil, that’s a daily occurrence.

On one of our first farm visits, we piled into open pickup beds because our tour bus wasn’t able to navigate the roads leading to the farm’s pastures and feedlot. After riding several miles along bumpy red dirt roads, we were all caked in red dust from head to toe.

We encountered a similar situation the next day with another road that was impassable by bus due to several deep mudholes along the route. This time we stuffed 18 people into a 16-passenger van for a six-mile ride that took 30 minutes, wondering the whole time if the next mudhole would be the one that swallowed our van. (In fact, just last week a tour bus in Brazil fell through a bridge and was swept away by a river current.) For the return trip, our van driver chose to drive along a primitive path in an adjacent sugarcane field because it was in better condition that the actual road.

On another visit, our bus got stuck at the end of a drive at a state research farm. One of the farm’s supervisors assured us it would be OK to attempt the trip, because this was the same road that the trucks used during sugarcane harvest.

And that’s the point, really. These roads we were traveling on are the very same ones that Brazilian farmers use to transport their valuable sugarcane, soybean and corn crops.

It underscored the value of keeping Iowa’s road system in good shape.

Infrastructure is one of the United States’ key advantages over Brazil, which has much lower land and labor costs. But it costs a farmer in Brazil’s Mato Grasso state $2.40 a bushel to move his soybeans to the nearest port, said Dave Miller, Iowa Farm Bureau research and commodities director. That’s four times more than it costs to move grain a similar distance from Keokuk to New Orleans, Miller said. We heard Brazil is attempting to improve its roads but an unstable and corrupt government makes progress slow or non-existent.

“Despite what we complain about sometimes in Iowa, the reality is there’s just no comparison,” Miller said .  “Iowa roads are substantially better than the road infrastructure in Brazil.”

That’s an advantage Iowa farmers, businesses and citizens can’t afford to lose.

By Tom Block. Tom is Spokesman News Coordinator for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.